Federal prosecutors accuse a veteran U.S. State Department employee with obstructing justice and lying about repeated contacts with foreign intelligence agents for China as she and people close to her accepted cash and gifts for years, according to charges unsealed Wednesday.
Candace Marie Claiborne, 60, has worked in office management at State since 1999 and held a top-secret security clearance, prosecutors said. She currently works at the Office of Caucasus Affairs and Regional Conflicts but previously had postings in China, Iraq, Sudan and several other countries, court filings show.
The Justice Department said that between 2011 and 2016, agents for the People’s Republic of China gave Claiborne’s family tens of thousands of dollars in gifts over five years, including cash, electronics, trips, an apartment and tuition at a Chinese fashion school.
She faces a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison if convicted, U.S. officials said.
Claiborne, of Northwest Washington, was not required to enter a plea at a court appearance Wednesday and said little before U.S. Magistrate Robin M. Meriweather of the District ordered Claiborne held on home confinement and set a preliminary hearing pending indictment for April 18.
Prosecutors notified the court that they intended to use evidence collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Claiborne allegedly confided to an unidentified co-conspirator, who lived with her in China, that the agents were spies, prosecutors said, and wrote in her journal that she could “Generate 20k in 1 year” working with them. Prosecutors charge that one of the agents asked her to provide internal U.S. analyses of economic talks in 2011 between the two countries and wired her bank account nearly $2,500.
In a 59-page affidavit filed Tuesday in support of an arrest warrant, FBI Special Agent Kellie O’Brien with the Washington Field Office’s counterintelligence division said Claiborne misled investigators for State and the FBI, including by allegedly instructing the Chinese agents and her live-in co-conspirator to delete evidence of the contacts and gifts.
O’Brien did not name the Chinese nationals but said one is an importer and exporter who runs a spa and restaurant in Shanghai and has known Claiborne since at least 2007 and the other has communicated with Claiborne since 2012. U.S. authorities contend that both work for the Shanghai State Security Bureau, court filings show.
“Claiborne used her position and her access to sensitive diplomatic data for personal profit. Pursuing those who imperil our national security for personal gain will remain a key priority of the National Security Division,” Mary B. McCord, acting assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.
Claiborne’s attorney argued that she did not pose a flight risk or public-safety threat.
“This is a 60-year-old woman who has never been involved in the criminal justice system,” said Assistant Federal Defender David Bos, who is representing Claiborne until she hires a private lawyer. “She does have family. There’s no indication she has tried to avoid these allegations.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney John L. Hill said that Claiborne’s knowledge of several foreign languages and countries warrant closer monitoring.
“Based on her contacts, her background, the information she knows in her mind, we do have to make sure she stays put,” Hill said in asking for the home confinement.
O’Brien’s affidavit redacted identifying information about the co-conspirator who lived with Claiborne in China, but it stated that Claiborne wanted him to pursue educational and career goals he had set overseas and that she sought financial help from the foreign agents who, along with Claiborne and Conspirator A, “were well aware, Claiborne’s goals were unobtainable on her State Department salary.”
The agents allegedly paid for the co-conspirator’s college tuition in China, housing, travel and a monthly stipend and intervened to stop a Chinese criminal investigation into him and helped pay for his last-minute travel back to the United States, O’Brien alleged.
Rachel Weiner, Carol Morello and Julie Tate contributed to this report.